Bauman and the West: Exile, Culture, Dialogue

Principal Investigator: Jack Palmer
Value: £95,360.62
End date: September 2021
Funder: Leverhulme Trust

The principal aim of the proposed project is to understand the role of the idea of the West in the sociology of Zygmunt Bauman. This project will be the first study of Bauman to adopt this focus. The project will constitute a significant contribution to scholarship on one of the most important and influential European intellectuals of the late 20th and early 21st century. Beyond this, as a study of the life and work of an émigré intellectual, it will also be an important intervention in an ongoing, more extensive discussion about Eurocentrism – defined as a recurring cognitive myopia in intellectuals and ideas emanating from Europe – in social and political thought. This discussion is of great relevance to contemporary political arguments about the promises and pitfalls of globalisation and the increasing tendency towards hostile, isolationist nationalism around the world. Bauman was himself extremely engaged in these social, political and moral challenges of our times and this will necessarily be reflected in the project.

I will incorporate three interconnected strands within the project, named ‘exile’, ‘culture’, and ‘dialogue’:

Strand one – Exile: A treatment of Bauman’s biographical status as a ‘outsider’ in the West. It will situate him as part of a generation of central and eastern European Jewish intellectuals exiled by both Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, including figures such as Agnes Heller, Ernest Gellner and S.N. Eisenstadt. The strand has a twofold focus: first, to explore the relationship between Bauman’s life and his work; and second, to situate him within a generation of émigré intellectuals. It will focus on the extent to which his deconstruction of Eurocentric and triumphant narratives of ‘progress’ in the discourse of modernity, culminating in his landmark book Modernity and the Holocaust, was influenced by his formative experience of totalitarianism in the Nazi and Soviet land empires. It will be guided by the hypothesis that this experience provided Bauman with a motivation to reflect on both the dark side of modernity and on the plurality of experiences and interpretations of modernity within Europe.

Strand two – Culture: This strand will track the development of three themes across the entirety of Bauman’s English-language work: the theory of culture as praxis; cross-cultural hermeneutical interpretation; and socialism as a counter-culture of modernity. In particular, it will foreground his extensive, though relatively unknown, socio-political writings on communism in central and eastern Europe, especially Poland. This strand will also engage with Bauman’s neglected discussions of European colonial expansion and decolonisation, central to the development of his sociology of postmodernity in the 1980s and 1990s.

Strand three – Dialogue:  A consideration of how aspects of Bauman’s theorisation of modernity can usefully be deployed for understanding non-Western experiences and interpretations of modernity, bringing his work into dialogue with key contemporary research paradigms in social theory. These paradigms include:

  • postcolonial sociology;
  • theories of multiple modernities;
  • genocide studies.

I hypothesise that fundamental aspects of Bauman’s theoretical framework – for instance, the ‘gardening’ metaphor deployed as a central trope in his analysis of modernity – are suitable for the substantive study of the European colonial-imperial state. I also suggest that there is a significant confluence of Bauman’s thought with theories of multiple modernities, specifically his relatively unknown writings on central and Eastern Europe, communism and Stalinism. Finally, I propose that Bauman’s work on mass violence and the Holocaust has significant potential to enrich important contemporary debates in genocide studies on the relationships between colonial-imperialism and genocide.

The project will make use of extensive, hitherto unseen archival materials kindly passed to the University of Leeds by the Bauman family, and still in the process of being catalogued, the Janina and Zygmunt Bauman Archive is of international scholarly significance.